Thursday, April 09, 2009

Maundy Thursday Sermon

Maundy Thursday – Year B (RCL)
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1,10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17,31b-35
Thursday, April 9, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

What could be more tender, and in some ways, more joyful, more satisfying, than taking care of a child, particularly an infant? This is particularly so for those of you who are parents or grandparents. But I think the opportunity to care for an infant evokes an exceptional set of emotions in nearly all human being, even in those who are not parents. After all, many of us have had occasion to take care of an infant – perhaps a younger sibling or cousin, or the child of a friend. Perhaps such action as feeding and bathing a child touches something deep within us – some instinct that we need to care for our young in order to insure survival of the species. Or perhaps, caring for a child triggers some unconscious memory of a time when we ourselves were cared for by a parent or some other special person who loved and nurtured us – of a time when we ourselves were fed by another, provided with life-giving sustenance; of a time when we ourselves were bathed, made clean at the hands of another.

Today’s Gospel lesson contains such images. The images of one tenderly, joyfully, feeding and washing those whom he loves. In this passage, we witness Jesus’ final act of love and compassion toward those who were among his most beloved friends, his disciples. He has shared his last supper with the disciples – feeding them not just with bread and wine, but with his body and blood. And after the meal, he tenderly washes their feet, making them ritually clean, in preparation for their reception into the midst of the holy. These are tender and sacred actions. Not because they are performed by Jesus. Not because they are his final actions before his arrest and his eventual trial and crucifixion. But because they touch at the very heart of a most basic and natural set of human behaviors – caring for those whom we care about, meeting the most fundamental needs of another.

In these actions, Jesus imitates the actions of a parent caring for a helpless infant. In these actions, Jesus provides an expression of the self-less love of parent for child. In fact, at one point, he even tells the Twelve, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.” Referring to a bunch of grown men as “little children” is not meant to be condescending. Rather, it is meant to convey the sense of their need for someone to care for them, to nurture them, to provide for them; not because they can’t do it for themselves, but out of a sense of love and compassion by someone who deeply and truly cares for them. But more importantly, it is meant to convey the fact that he himself, sent by God, of God, is willing to do this for them. He who is from God, representing God, is saying, “the Father and I love you and wish to care for you in the most tender and intimate of ways, just as a parent cares for a child.”

While the Gospel lesson deals with both feeding and washing, the central action is most definitely the washing of the disciples’ feet. This is not without significance. The invitation to wash the disciples’ feet’ and their, particularly Peter’s, reluctance, indicates something very specific – something that applies not only to the Twelve, but to all of us. To have one’s feet washed is an exercise in vulnerability. Even when performed by one who is a close friend, having your feet washed by another requires a deep connection on a physical level, one that also touches us at deep emotional and even spiritual levels.

I remember the first time I experienced foot washing. I was in high school and my entire youth group went to a camp over Presidents Day weekend in the San Bernardino Mountains. There were hundreds of youth there from all over Southern California. On the first night, as part of the opening worship experience, we were told to sit down in small groups, in circles. Someone brought basins of water and placed them in the center of each circle. We were instructed to pair up, and to wash each other’s feet. There, in the dimly lit room, with soft contemplative music playing in the background, all I could think about was how I didn’t want to do this. Everyone seemed to be thinking the same thing. No one made a move to start the foot washing. Finally, my partner took the initiative. He took my bare feet and gently, tenderly washed them in the basin of warm water. Almost as soon as he started, I began to cry. Having someone wash my feet was such a humbling experience. I felt so vulnerable, having someone care for me in such a way, to completely give up any control over the situation and what was being done to me, to drop my guard enough to allow another to care for me.

And then, when he was done washing my feet, I washed his. And to my dismay, I continued to cry. I was crying because I had to be vulnerable in a different way. Once again, I had to let my guard down, but this time it was to set aside my ego, to allow myself to be open and vulnerable to being of service to another – not just any service, like passing the salt at dinner. That doesn’t require vulnerability. No, this required that I tear down any barriers I had between me and this other person, to allow myself to enter into an intimate connection with another. Even in the midst of the tears, I felt the joy of being able to care for another. The tears of humility and vulnerability turned to tears of joy. I felt the joy of being able to connect in a very deep way, in a non-verbal way, with another of God’s children, to share a moment of mutual vulnerability, where we were able to connect on a spiritual level, knowing who we are, and more importantly, whose we are.

It’s incredibly uncomfortable to be vulnerable. Peter expresses this in his reluctance to allowing Jesus to wash his feet. He is reluctant to accept Jesus’ gift of intimacy. Peter does eventually overcome his reluctance, only after Jesus convinces him that this simple gesture of washing of feet, that the willingness of to be vulnerable, provides the opening that is needed to connect on a much deeper, more spiritual level. And so, Peter and the disciples consent to be vulnerable. They allow Jesus to wash their feet.

And in this act of washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus, too, was allowing himself to be vulnerable. Not vulnerable in the sense of entering into the place of humility that is required for a person to be of service to another. That part was easy for Jesus. That was who he was. He was used to the humble self-less, self-giving service to others. No, for Jesus, this place of vulnerability was the ultimate test of his character, the ultimate test of who he was, of who he was called to be, of what he was called to do.

Unbeknownst to Peter and the other disciples, Jesus was not only going to wash away the dirt from their feet. What they did not know at that moment was that in just a few hours, Jesus would be betrayed. He would be arrested and brought to trial before Pontius Pilate on trumped up charges. He would be found guilty in a trial that was a mockery of justice. He would be sentenced to death by the most cruel and demeaning form of punishment ever envisioned by humanity. And three days later, he would be raised from the dead. In so doing, he would break the bonds of sin and death, paving the way for eternal life for all. What looked like a simple act of humility and compassion on this night, the washing away of a little dirt, was but a foretaste of what was to come. For in a few days from now, it is not just a little dirt that is washed away, but sin and death itself.

Knowing all of this would take place, knowing that this act of washing the feet of his closest friends would be his last act of compassion in his human existence, Jesus would have had to break down all the defenses, all the human desires for self-preservation, to be utterly and completely vulnerable to the will of his Father. Jesus would have to be so vulnerable that all sense of self-protection would be stripped away to allow him to take on the most self-less and self-giving task ever asked of anyone – to take on the sins, not only of another, but of all of humanity. He would have to be vulnerable enough to be willing to die for all of humanity. But this he was willing to do. Why? Because of his complete and total love and compassion for his fellow human beings. Because of his complete and total love and compassion for us.

In this Holy Week, we are not called to just witness Jesus’ vulnerability. We are called to be vulnerable ourselves. Because of what happens over the next few days, we are ultimately given new life. We are given new life to be the Body of Christ. And that calling to be the Body of Christ carries with it a huge price tag. It requires that we, like the disciples, like Jesus, be vulnerable to the will of the Father, to be open and vulnerable to be called to do whatever is necessary as we proclaim the mysteries that are happening this week in our midst, as we proclaim the Gospel of Christ.

On this side of the resurrection, we are the hands of Christ in the world, taking Christ’s message to others through our actions. When we wash the feet of another, we are the hands of Christ washing the feet of his dear disciples. When we allow another to wash our own feet, that person is the hands of Christ washing the feet of a dear disciple. Both acts, washing the feet of another and allowing another to wash our feet, both require vulnerability – vulnerability to be open to the will of another; vulnerability to be of service to another; vulnerability to share the love and compassion of Christ with a world so in need of a tender, caring touch.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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